Distressed that Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens continues to defy his 3.5-year-old discovery orders in a death penalty case by hiding evidence, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals today ordered her not to destroy any of the buried records, blasted her mindset as an affront to the rule of law and suggested future special hearings to unravel the scandal.
“[Sheriff Hutchens] has lost the moral high ground here,” Goethals said during today’s hearing in People v. Scott Dekraai, a case stemming from the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre. Though there’s no dispute that Dekraai was the gunman, law enforcement nonetheless cheated by running unconstitutional scams, hiding records and committing perjury in hopes of ensuring a death penalty verdict. According to the judge, there is “probable cause” to believe Hutchens is continuing to hide evidence in the case.
“It’s time for compliance,” he said. “Frankly, I’m not worried about embarrassing the sheriff.”
At the core of the latest controversy are missing records tied to a jailhouse “Special Handling Log,” which the sheriff maintains should be kept secret because it is vital to jail security, but it also contains entries that impeach the credibility of numerous deputies handling jailhouse informants.
Hutchens managed to hide the existence of the log until this year, when we learned that it quietly ended just days after Goethals issued his January 2013 discovery order to the sheriff’s department in Dekraai.
Largely through Deputy County Counsel Elizabeth Pejeau, Hutchens has refused to explain why the database allegedly ended or if, in one of her latest unethical moves, she merely renamed it in an effort to thwart court demands for its production.
Pejeau hasn't been helpful to Goethals, who demanded an answer but received bureaucratic gobbledygook. According to her, the sheriff has been working tirelessly to discover what records are in her possession at her paramilitary organization. Pejeau insisted, “She is doing a diligent search.”
The line helped cause the eruption of Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who represents Dekraai and labels the situation “a conspiracy of silence” between the sheriff’s department and Tony Rackauckas' Orange County district attorney’s office.
“I think we’ve waited long enough,” said a visibly frustrated Sanders, who didn’t succeed in getting the judge to formally demand the disclosure of all the missing evidence today. “[The sheriff and the DA] are pretending they are in a mystery they can’t unravel.”
Based on portions of the log the defense lawyer has reviewed under a protective order, he said evidence shows that Dekraai prosecutor Dan Wagner tipped Special Handling deputy Seth Tunstall in January 2013 that Goethals might want damaging agency records surrendered to the defense in compliance with basic discovery rules. According to the still secret log entry, within a day of Wagner’s communication, deputies met privately to discuss ways to hide future information beginning on February 1, 2013, and, at least initially, concluded they’d make it out of the reach of judges, juries and defense lawyers by not naming it. In court today, Sanders sarcastically labeled the new hidden version, “The Important Information Log.”
The defense lawyer also called Hutchens’ scheming “beyond outrageous.”
The judge isn’t happy either, saying, “I can’t understand why [whatever replaced the log] hasn’t been produced.”
Ordering a November 10 hearing where he expects an honest answer from the sheriff, Goethals noted, “The court has been waiting a long time.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.